Melbourne is undergoing a significant once-in-a-generation transformation.
An extensive infrastructure program and the renewal of key cultural and public realm spaces is underway.
Distinctly in 2019, the notion that Indigenous engagement and placemaking is essential to design thinking is gaining greater currency.
Importantly, the question of why we should consider Indigenous perspectives, expression and connectedness in shaping our places and spaces in a major metropolis like Melbourne is broadly understood. The real challenge is less a question of why, but rather rests on how.
How do we implement such lofty aspirations and ambition? How do we ensure and centre Indigenous agency? How do we foreground Indigenous knowledge and connections?
Here at the University of Melbourne, we’re not immune to this motivation. The University is also undertaking key projects of tremendous enterprise and importance to ensure the university retains its position as a leading, global educational institution, embodied by a Melbourne-based campus of critical relevance.
In fact, these questions of Indigenous agency were the impetus behind last year’s Melbourne School of Design’s – Go Back to Where You Came From: Indigenous Design – Past/Present/Future, which ran alongside with the exhibition Blak Design Matters, a national survey of contemporary Indigenous design.
Both demonstrate that there is indeed an acute interest and appetite to have a meaningful dialogue around how Indigenous design practitioners can begin to inform and shape the built environment.
What’s particularly compelling is the general consensus among First Nations designers and thinkers from many countries at the MSD Symposium, that Melbourne is ahead of the pack in raising the level and depth of interrogation and leadership within this area.
The New Student Precinct at the university is a case in point.
The Precinct project embeds reconciliation at scale. It seeks to raise the bar and interrogate the question of how Indigenous culture can become embedded as part of the DNA of a project.
As well as exploring the opportunity to infuse design methodologies which enhance connections to Country, centred on a meaningful understanding of place.
The project has been informed by a holistic design philosophy which centres on the core tenants of people, purpose and place, which anchor the project to the site’s deep history and connectedness to Kulin Nation culture.
The University has become a unique conduit to explore these multifaceted and often under-articulated questions, demonstrated through concrete action and implementation.
The Precinct project has moved beyond simplistic quick wins, or focusing on the low hanging fruit of surface treatment or plonk art, but rather an immersive engagement which has explored ideas co-designed by Indigenous voices.
These methodologies have resulted in the cultural imprimatur to amplify the opportunity – infusing the project with an overarching cultural narrative of great richness and metaphorical resonance.
The compelling narrative (and hopefully a genesis of student memory) is the revealing of the unbroken lineage of an eel migration that traverses under the Parkville campus through the piped watercourses that bisected the campus and continues to this very day, echoing the memories, stories and histories of place.
On the traditional lands of the Kulin Nation, who have lived in this area for more than 60,000 years, short-finned eels migrated from the bay, along Elizabeth Creek up Bouverie Creek and towards the tributaries of the Birrurung (the Yarra River) to breed each year, becoming one of the seasonal foods of the people who lived there.
The creeks and billabongs that traversed the campus were redirected and piped underground as the campus was developed. These rich connections have consequently been concealed, until now.
Part of the design is to reveal a cultural narrative that talks to watercourses in and around the Precinct and to foreground water as an important design element.
This place-centred approach to reimagining Country through a water story, by actively bringing water to the surface, coupled with a distinct narrative for Murrup Barak – the Indigenous unit of the University – seeks to connect people to the deep history and antiquity of Indigenous culture, while being ever mindful of the future.
The metaphor here talks to Indigenous resilience or the ability, despite the odds, for both the eels and Indigenous culture more broadly to adapt and change, to persist and to endure.
The weaving together of these stories seeks to reiterate the University’s unstinting commitment to reconciliation reflected in deeds and design.
This has all been supported by a carefully-calibrated Indigenous engagement strategy, that has been Indigenous-led and supported by Greenshoot Consulting through a collective experience in culturally responsive design practice, which has privileged and foregrounded Indigenous voices.
Gone are the tokenistic techniques of engagement predicated on a pre-formulated position, but rather a nuanced process of deep listening, conversation and knowledge exchange.
It’s also created a framework to capture the Indigenous voices of the university, including a representation from 45 language groups from our vast island continent.
Parallel to all this work has been the critical role of students in walking side-by-side with the design team, that includes a retinue of student ambassadors, supporters and participants.
The outcome has been unlike most projects encountered in design practice, yet demonstrates that the many can meaningfully shape and inform the direction of even a project of vast scale.
The impact and importance of the New Student Precinct is an exemplar project that fosters Indigenous agency, the evocative power of Indigenous design thinking and a collaborative model that wholly normalises, embraces and celebrates a shared connection to Country.
This ambitious project will create new and meaningful stories rooted in an exploration of Indigenous experience, while providing everyone with the opportunity to be enveloped by the sights, sounds and sensory echoes of place, to become a new artefact of great depth and meaning.
Banner: Lyons (Principal Architects) New Student Precinct Project